The Pagoda Bell
By MICHELLE NICHOLL LYNCH
The Japanese bell that hangs from the ceiling on the top floor of the Pagoda has a history as fascinating as that of the Pagoda itself. According to oral family tradition, the Pagoda’s builder, William A. Witman, Sr., purchased the bell upon the recommendation of a Japanese family living in Reading during the time of the Pagoda’s construction in 1907.
Witman ordered the bell through the A.A. Valentine agency of Broadway, New York, an exporter and importer of oriental goods. The bell traveled through the Suez Canal and reached New York on April 19, 1907, Traveling from New York by railroad, it arrived in Reading on May 5, 1907, complete with a written history and instructions for its use. Unfortunately, these have been lost. However, an account in the Reading Eagle tells of the bell’s arrival and history.
It was cast in Obata, Japan in 1739 by a man named Mikawaya, who, along with 47 other men, presented the bell to the Buddhist Temple, Shozenji, at Yakuosan, now part of Tokyo. Several different translations have been made of the bell’s inscription. Most scholars agree that the inscription contains the names of the bell’s donors and a prophesy regarding the end of time.
When the bell was installed in its new home at the Pagoda, it was complete with its original striker. Oriental bells, unlike western bells, do not have clappers. The bell was struck by a beam which hung suspended beside it on four ropes. A fifth rope was used by the ringer as a guide. This ensured that the bell was struck high on its side, producing the best tone. Though the fate of this striker remains a mystery, the bell itself can still be viewed, a reward for climbing the 86 steps to the top of the Pagoda.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.